Voluntourism & Narcissism: One and the Same?

Emily Reed

Volunteering abroad is more accessible than ever, and organising a trip to a rural area in a different country is completed with a few short clicks and a credit card payment. While those who go on international volunteer trips expect to be praised for their nobility, there are more criticisms of the notion than compliments. Voluntourism is nothing more than modern-day colonialism in a good disguise.

The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism and the White Saviour Complex

White supremacy is so ingrained in our minds and the volunteer industry that, as a society, we don’t see anything wrong with westerners travelling to different countries to build infrastructure. It’s hopelessly ironic; the West has exhausted “developing” countries for all of their resources, and now wants to snatch jobs away from skilled labourers within the community, and give them to inexperienced, unskilled volunteers.

Rather than hire skilled labourers and help the local economy, massive corporate charities are snubbing those within the local community and favouring white, unskilled tourists that are put into a position of leadership or power. As usual, organisations would rather fly in an inexperienced westerner than hire a local labourer and give them a salary, ultimately benefiting the local economy. Companies that promote international volunteering as a means of charity are false; they are not philanthropic, they aren’t charitable — they are power-hungry capitalists incognito.

While many individuals who volunteer abroad have good intentions, there are many who don’t. Naturally, the biggest defenders of voluntourism actually claim that its real value is to change the visitor rather than the community.

Let’s put it bluntly: volunteering abroad and helping communities should not be part of one’s journey of fulfilment and self-discovery; it exists to help communities, not yourself. 

There is a portion of international volunteers that do go in with the right intentions, but there’s a large population with a completely distorted perspective of what they will actually be doing. Some go on these trips purely for self-gratification and to document their experience on social media, to create some leverage on their Instagram or make themselves seem superior to the average traveller. These Instagram photo opportunities don’t show the grunt work of these trips; it shows an ideal version that does nothing more than feed narcissists' egos. Rather than helping the community, photographing and documenting these experiences are seen as a display of power and a tool to further fuel classist and colonialist attitudes.

For those who go with the purpose of creating change, it’s unlikely that it’ll happen after a short, expensive trip where you tried to build a house with no previous experience. Generational poverty and corruption due to colonialism cannot be changed with one shitty nail being hammered into a piece of wood, and it certainly cannot be changed after one westerners’ two week trip to an ‘exotic’ place. Not only won’t it happen, but just the idea that it could is also incredibly patronising. The volunteers’ engagement within the community only happens on a superficial level, not by actually immersing themselves in the local culture and understanding their way of life. Volunteers come out of these trips feeling fulfilled and proud, but in reality, they haven’t understood the socio-economic issues that create humanitarian issues in the first place. 

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While this isn’t the case with all organisations and international volunteers, it is true that voluntourism perpetuates the idea that “developing” countries are sitting around, waiting for western volunteers to come and build their communities. American-Canadian scholar Henry A. Giroux similarly criticises voluntourism, stating it “normalises the differential in power between the voluntourist and the indigenous community.” The idea that white people are an essential part of helping non-white people, who — according to these Western charities — are unable to help themselves and need Western influence and infrastructure, is incredibly harmful and reinforces colonial ideas and only further solidifies the white saviour complex rooted in our society.

This goes back to the foundation and defence of voluntourism: the fulfilment of volunteers rather than the communities they infiltrate.

A Structure Built on Capitalist Greed

Upon first inspection, one could say that the voluntourism industry is fueled by virtuous feelings, but in reality, its foundation is built purely on capitalist greed. If a charity hires local labourers for work, it’s spending money, whereas, if a charity uses volunteers who “pay for the experience”, it’s raising money. 

Choosing unqualified and unskilled volunteers purely for economic benefit ends up costing the community more than what they have. While there is the underlying goal of building infrastructure for communities, the work is often low-quality and unsafe and ends up costing the community more time, money, and energy than the volunteer has given. Pippa Biddle, author and contributor for the HuffPost, stated that on her trip to Tanzania as an inexperienced high school volunteer, the work she and her group completed was so poorly executed that it had to be redone at the end of the day. Biddle went on to say that it would’ve been more efficient, cost-effective and stimulating for the local economy for the orphanage to take their money and just hire locals to do the work.

In 1998, 162 Americans travelled to Honduras to build houses after Hurricane Mitch. While they were there, a study was completed, showing that the work they did in fact make a difference — negatively. The houses that were built by these volunteers — the ones that didn’t collapse after a small gust of wind — were far more expensive than if local resources and labourers were used. The houses built on this voluntourism trip cost approximately $30,000 each, which included airfare and accommodation for the volunteers. However, houses built by local organisations that employed skilled and local labourers came in just under $2000. The study concluded by stating that if charities had contributed money instead of imported labour, fifteen times more houses could’ve been built and that the volunteers did more harm than good.

Money goes a long way in developing countries. If nonprofits and charities have the choice of spending $2000 on an unskilled volunteer or making a long-term difference in the community by hiring more teachers, hiring skilled labourers, and improving medical infrastructure, the latter would make a far more significant and more economically sound decision. While it may make more financial sense and have better long-term impacts, many charities, even well-established ones, are in the business of exploitation and gain.

A Positive Impact? It’s Possible

There are ways to volunteer abroad and make a positive impact, but they require research, skills, and passion. If the voluntourism opportunity is well thought out, sustainable, and respectful, the volunteers can have a long-term impact and actually help the community.

Ken Budd, a writer for National Geographic and a six-time international volunteer recognizes the negative impacts surrounding voluntourism, but also acknowledges that it can be done correctly too. He describes the friendships, cross-cultural learning, and the changes volunteers can make to local communities as the biggest benefit of volunteering abroad. 

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There are a number of organisations that serve communities and put money towards useful incentives. Organisations like EarthWatch, Audubon Society, and Andorran Pyrenees help communities affected by climate change while simultaneously putting money into research for renewable energy and sustainable practices. If you were to go on an international volunteer trip, critical thinking and research are paramount. 

Before going on a volunteer trip abroad, ask yourself: what are your intentions? Do you have a particular skill that this community needs? Do you have a genuine desire to help vulnerable communities? Coming face to face with the fact that these trips may be fuelled by self-gratification rather than a need to help is difficult, but necessary in order to make a real difference abroad.

Emily Reed

“There’s always room for more mental health advocacy. Mental health looks different on everyone, and I feel that if I can write about my experiences, surely someone will be able to relate. Sometimes I struggle with my mental health when I’m doing something I’m supposed to love, like traveling, and although it seems weird at the time, it’s totally okay -- our emotions and feelings will always be valid.”
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